Legion have been the proposed explanations of John 3:16–what we may nostalgically call, “the end-zone verse.” It is safe to conclude that the better part of professing Christians in the Western world have consciously or unconsciously aligned themselves with the Arminian camp–insisting that this much beloved verse teaches us that God loves each and every individual; and, that, therefore, the Father sent the Son to die for each and every one. Yet, even within the Reformed tradition theologians have offered a variety of explanations concerning the meaning of the word “world” in our Lord’s statement.
B.B. Warfield, the great Princetonian theologian of a previous generation, explained what he saw as a large part of the hang up for so many who have adopted this view when he wrote:
“Strange as it may sound, it is true, that many—perhaps the majority—of those who feed their souls on this great declaration, seem to have trained themselves to think, when it falls upon their ears, in the first instance at least, not so much of how great—how immeasurably great—God’s love is, but rather of how great the world is.”
The Arminian position has, of course, has been solidly refuted by the Reformed. John Owen, in his prodigious work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, explained the biblical rationale for what theologians have called particular redemption or limited atonement (i.e. the teaching that the Son of God only laid down his life for the elect). He wrote:
“It was his ‘church’ which he ‘redeemed with his own blood,’ Acts 20:28; his ‘church’ that ‘he loved and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church,’ Eph. 5:25–27. They were his ‘sheep’ he ‘laid down his life for,’ John 10:15; and ‘appears in heaven for us,’ Heb. 9:24. Not one word of mediating for any other in the Scripture. Look upon his incarnation. It was ‘because the children were partakers of flesh and blood,’ chap. 2:14; not because all the world were so…’For their sakes,’ saith he, (‘those whom You have given me,’) ‘do I sanctify myself,’ John 17:19; that is, to be an oblation, which was the work he had then in hand. Look upon his resurrection: ‘He was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification,’ Rom. 4:25. Look upon his ascension: ‘I go,’ saith he, ‘to my Father and your Father, and that to prepare a place for you,’ John 14:2. Look upon his perpetuated intercession. Is it not to ‘save to the uttermost them that come unto God by him?’ Heb. 7:25. Not one word of this general mediation for all…he denies in plain terms to mediate for all: ‘I pray not,” saith he, “for the world, but for them which thou hast given me,’ John 17:9.”1
Jesus summarized this idea when he stated in no uncertain terms that he came to give his life “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and that his body and blood were given “for many” for the remission of sin. Add to this, the fact that the OT prophets and the Apostles clearly teach that God has appointed some to eternal perdition (Prov. 16:4; Romans 9:22; 1 Peter 2:8). It is unthinkable that the Apostle John would then mean that God savingly loves each and every person who has every lived or who will ever live.
Many, in reaction to those who espouse an Arminian reading of John 3:16, have suggested that John only has the elect in view. The logic runs thus: If Jesus only died for the elect, then it is only the elect God loves. Therefore, since John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son…” then we must conclude that the world is shorthand for the elect. This, it seems to me is a logically tenable yet textually shortsighted reading.
What then are we to make of the language of the world in John 3:16? There are many ways in which the word κόσμος (kosmos) is used in the NT. The authors of Scripture sometimes use it to refer to the Universe in general (see Acts 17:24), sometimes of the physical world (John 13:1; Eph. 1:4), sometimes of the fallen world system and its inhabitants (John 12:31; 15:18; Romans 3:6; 1 John 5:19), sometimes of the nations in a redemptive historical sense (John 1:29; 6:33; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2). It is this latter sense that seems to most closely fit the context of John 3:16. This distinguishes it a bit from those who insist on interpreting it as meaning “the world without exception.” Rather, it is “the world without distinction” that is in view. It is not necessarily teaching that Jesus only died for the elect (though that is certainly logically tied to what it is teaching); rather, it is teaching that Jesus was given by the Father for the salvation of all those among the nations who would come to believe in him. It is the nations that God has loved and for whom He has given His Son as a way of salvation.
Jesus introduces this verse with the typology of the serpent on the pole–which he drew out of Numbers 21:4-9. Knowing that this was a type of the work that he would accomplish on the cross, Jesus taught Nicodemus about the continuity of redemption in the Old and New Testament by appeal to the bronze serpent. In essence, Jesus taught the following redemptive-historical truth in John 3:15-16: Just as God loved Israel so that he offered them a way of salvation by faith (by means of looking at the serpent on the pole) so God has loved the nations and offers a way of salvation by faith to everyone who will look believingly on Christ and him crucified. There is a redemptive-historical shift and fulfillment highlighted in the transition from the serpent on the pole to the Son on the cross. This, it seems to me, is the best way to understand the Savior’s use of the word world in John 3:16. It is used there in the same sense in which the Apostle John used it in 1 John 2:2, when he wrote: “He himself is the propitiation for our (i.e. believingJews) sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (i.e. believers from among the nations). In this sense, we can say that world in these two places are in keeping with the Scripture’s teaching on the redemption of the elect from among the nations throughout all of the New Covenant era–only with a focus on the free offer of the Gospel. I find no more textually faithful reading to adopt when considering the teaching of this verse. It fact, it sails perfectly through the goal posts, avoiding error on both sides.
1. Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 10, pp. 189–190). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.